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Half of NSW’s coastal community thinks rising
sea levels will not impact them directly according to new data released by UNSW scientists.
The full report from UNSW – released on the anniversary of
the 2016 East Coast Low ‘superstorm’ that saw widespread damage along
Australia’s east coast, including the collapse of a Collaroy swimming pool –
describes what the NSW community understands about coastal erosion and
inundation, as well as the driving forces behind these hazards: sea level rise
and severe coastal storms.
“Our coastline is changing. Many locations
along the NSW coast are seeing amenity loss and infrastructure damage
associated with erosion and inundation – that is, the flooding of normally dry
land by sea water, often caused by storms surges or king tides,” says Professor Rob Brander from UNSW's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
who is also known as “Dr Rip”.
“These storm events will continue in the
future. Combined with anticipated sea level rise, they’ll only enhance the
extent and cost of coastal erosion damage and lead to greater inundation of
coastal zones throughout NSW in the future, particularly in low-lying estuarine
areas,” he says.
The researchers say people’s understanding and
perception of storms and sea level rise, and their associated impacts of
erosion and inundation, can significantly influence how and whether they engage
in coastal adaptation actions – often influencing the success or failure of
“That’s why we wanted to find out what coastal
communities understand and perceive about these hazards and how these hazards
will affect their interactions with, and use of, the coast in the future,” says
study author Anna Attard from UNSW Science.
“We think that’s an important aspect of
building community resiliency and preparedness to coastal erosion and
The My Coast NSW Study took place in 2017 and
2018, surveying more than 1000 people from all over the NSW coast, across three
main groups: Coastal Management Professionals (i.e. government, academics,
researchers and engineers), General Coastal Users (a cross section of people
who use the NSW coast), and Coastal Accommodation Businesses (owners, managers
or employees of accommodation businesses situated close to the coast).
The researchers say the resulting report
provides an evidence-based information platform to help local governments and
coastal management professionals in the future development of effective
educational strategies and programs.
“Our ultimate goal is to help improve the
ability of NSW coastal communities to adapt sustainably to the risk of coastal
erosion and inundation,” Ms Attard says.
Lack of community knowledge about the direct
impact of sea level rise is one of the key aspects of the report – which the
authors say is concerning, given that sea level rise is a key factor driving
coastal erosion and inundation.
“We found that only about 50% of general
coastal users think that sea level rise will impact them directly – that’s a
worry, given that estimates suggest that by 2100, sea level rise could increase
by a metre or more if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchanged,” Ms Attard
“Even more worryingly, 25% of coastal
accommodation businesses don’t know or are unsure if sea levels are even rising
The scientists say sea level rise will affect
everybody, from those who use the coast day-to-day, to those who may visit a
few times a year – and not just people on the front line living near the cost,
“Rising sea levels mean far-reaching impacts
on people’s transport, infrastructure, sewerage and water, to name just a few
examples,” Ms Attard says.
“It could also affect how you’re able to use
your favourite beach, which you may only visit once a year.”
The researchers also explored how often people
thought big storms like the 2016 East Coast low event were occurring.
“45% of the general coastal users we surveyed
think storms like the one in 2016 occur only every 20 years, so they think it’s
rarer than what’s actually happening. But over the last decade or so, we’ve
actually had a few major storms in NSW – in 2016, 2015 and 2007, at least,” Ms
The report also found a clear disconnect
between what coastal management professionals think the public should know
about coastal hazards, and what the public flagged as wanting to know more
“General coastal users told us that would like
to know more about how climate change will impact their immediate coast, what
the possible solutions are and who the ‘key players’ of coastal management
are,” says Ms Attard.
“But coastal professionals said that coastal
communities need more information about direct personal and public risks
associated with coastal hazards, general information about coastal hazards and
processes, and their impacts on the greater NSW community – that’s very
different from what the general users said their information needs are.
“Community engagement needs to be a two-way
process to address that disconnect.”
The My Coast study was funded under the joint
State and Commonwealth Natural Disaster Resilience Program. The grant was
awarded to UNSW in March 2017 and the study was conducted in partnership with
the Sydney Coastal Councils Group (SCCG), Surf Life Saving NSW (SLS NSW) and
the NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH).
The full My Coast study report, along with
multiple fact sheets and a guide for teachers, can be accessed online.